The Australian Judicial System

The Australian court system has two main arms-State and Federal. Within each State the courts are divided into three levels-lower courts, intermediate courts and the Supreme Court. Decisions made at one level can be appealed against at a higher level (under certain rules). The two Federal Territories also have their own courts, similar to the state courts, but without the intermediate level.

The two main Federal courts are the Federal Court and the Family Court, and there are various specialised Federal tribunals, such as the Industrial Relations Commission. Sitting over all the courts is the High Court of Australia.

The names of the lower courts vary according to the State and possibly the function being performed. For example, if a child is being charged, the normal magistrates' court will sit as the children's court. These cases are usually presided over by a magistrate (that is, there is no jury) who hears minor civil and family law cases, traffic and local council breaches, minor criminal cases and committal proceedings. Lower courts are limited in the size of the penalty they can impose in criminal cases or the amount of money they can award in civil cases.

The names of the intermediate courts also varies between States. They deal with more serious criminal offences and with more complex or expensive civil disputes. Criminal cases are heard by a judge and jury.

Supreme Courts deal with major civil cases. In criminal law, to some extent the Supreme Court's powers overlap with those of the intermediate courts, so a serious criminal offence could be heard either in the Supreme Court or a local intermediate court, depending on various factors.

A major function of the Supreme Court is to handle appeals from other courts. Often appeals are heard first by a single judge; a full Supreme Court usually consists of three judges sitting together.

The Federal Court deals with Federal law such as the Trade Practices Act and bankruptcy. It also hears appeals from the specialised Federal tribunals and the two Territories.

The Family Court of Australia deals directly with family law matters.

The High Court of Australia sits on constitutional disputes and can also hear appeals from all other courts. A High Court decision is final.